Tagged "taste"

Coffee Around the World, Pt. 2: Varietals

Posted by Christopher McClure on

Many coffee drinkers are unaware of the existence of varietals: different strains of the coffee plant that grow cherries (and beans) with different characteristics. While growers have known about these coffee varieties for a long time, most of the attention has been paid to how resistant they are to pest or disease, or how much coffee they yield. Until very recently, neither coffee growers nor consumers have not paid any attention to how varietals affect the coffee they’re drinking.

The closest you'll get to a coffee rainbow (photo by Mad Cap Coffee)

For the foodies among us, it’s somewhat of a shame. Some drink (or don’t drink) wines based solely on the grape (no merlots please). Even when it comes to apples in the supermarket you know that you have options and know that certain are better for baking, some are better for applesauce, and some are best plucked right off the tree as a snack. Yet no one looks at a bag of coffee and thinks, “oh pacamara, that’ll be a nice citrusy cup just the way I like.”

"Pacamara is truly the honey crisp of coffee" said no one ever

Coffee varietals form like just about every other type of variation in plants and animals: random genetic mutations. Many varietals have been specifically bred for certain characteristics, like catimor, a variety with a little bit of robusta in it’s family tree that mixes hardiness and productivity, while some varietals have formed as coffee plants have been moved to different environments and slowly changed over time. We have a pretty good knowledge of varietals in many countries because when farmers started growing coffee, they based their farms off a few seed or trees they were able to sneak out of Ethiopia. This means many countries have only a few varietals growing in them, and we know them pretty well. Ethiopia is a special case—because it is the birthplace of coffee there are so many varietals that no one has ever been able to categorize all of them. The variety within Ethiopian coffee and the uniqueness of those varietals—often not found anywhere else in the world—is one of the reasons that Ethiopian coffee is so unique.

Coffee blossoms of the Gesha varietal, as noted by Serious Eats

With a new focus on varietals, there has been a change in how varietals are chosen. One of the few categorized Ethiopian varietals, Gesha, has been getting notice in the coffee world for how delicious it is. This has resulted in farms starting to grow more Gesha because they know they can ask for a higher price. Though it represents a greater level of awareness regarding This isn’t entirely new to the coffee growing world—back n the 1930s the Kenyan government had a laboratory do a survey of varietals in Kenya to find the best bets for a successful coffee future. The results were that the country should grow the varieties that became named SL34 and the now prized SL28.

SL28 — when coffee and rapper names collide (photo by Counter Culture)

Despite that research nearly a century ago, a surge in knowledge about and awareness of varietals has been a pretty recent phenomenon. Luckily, consumers have more tools at their disposal than ever. Any good roaster will list the varietals on the coffee bag, you can find coffee family trees and descriptions of varietals, and some varietals (such as Gesha and SL28, as mentioned above) are being noted for their extreme tastiness. In 2013 Mad Cap Coffee even released a varietal series that featured coffees sorted by varietal from one farm (and coffee nerds everywhere drooled). So the next time you pick up a bag of coffee, take a look at the varietals on the bag, even if just to appreciate the diversity in the coffee world! Stay tuned for the next piece in the series where we'll take a look at how climate, weather, soil and more can affect the flavor of your coffee!

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What Does Coffee Taste Like?

Posted by Christopher McClure on

There was recently a segment on the Today show that did a blind taste test between what they called ‘cheap deli coffee’ and ‘fancy gourmet coffee.’ Their finding? 67% of participants preferred the cheap stuff. It has prompted some negativity from those interested in craft coffee, and for good reasons (what coffees are they using? how are they roasted? how are they brewed? how long did they sit around before being served? how does ‘dozens’ constitute any kind of meaningful sample size?), but there might be something to what they’re saying. Mostly being: maybe most people aren’t able to tell what they’re drinking when they have coffee. They just taste coffee.

There’s nothing wrong with just tasting coffee: it is what you’re drinking after all. But there’s more going on, and for those of you who are already drinking the ‘fancy gourmet coffee’ it might be worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate what you’re drinking since you’re already paying a premium. That of course begs the question, what is there? We’ve mentioned before that coffee is a complex thing, and when you’re talking about single origin coffees, that’s especially true. So how do you break it down?

Start broad and go back to the basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter*. You don’t usually encounter any salty flavors in coffee (not that it doesn’t happen), so you already only have three to focus on. Bitter is easy to recognize, and though it's present to some degree in every cup of coffee, if it stands out it usually means you have bad cup of coffee. So assuming you have something quality in your hands, you’re looking mostly at sweet and sour flavors. Sweet might make sense to some, but sour is an odd flavor to have in coffee and probably means someone royally messed up your coffee, right? Not necessarily. If you have a coffee and instantly think, ‘this is sour,’ that’s an issue. But a balanced sourness is what we call brightness. It makes a cup lighter and crisper, like tart fruit. Of course this is just a simple break down, a start to a longer (and much more enjoyable) journey.

May I present the official coffee taster’s wheel?

This wheel offers a great starting point after you start to pay attention to the basic flavors, it provides a language for you to start connecting to, working from the inside out. Maybe all you’ll be able to notice is that the coffee is sweet, or fruity, or tastes like chocolate. But if you start thinking about it enough you’ll start to recognize that sometimes that fruity flavor is a little more like citrus, and sometimes it’s a little more like a berry. Sometimes that citrus is more like a lemon and sometimes more like an orange. It takes time, but with practice it’s something anyone can start to notice!

We find the wheels help because you don’t have to create your own words for the flavors, you get to see some common terms and find something you connect with. Of course flavor is subjective, so a dozen different people could taste the same exact cup of coffee and taste a dozen different things. But most people will at least agree on the inner wheels, and that’s a great place to start.

Now that you have the basic tools, the next time you go out and grab a cup of coffee, take a moment to taste your coffee and think about it, even if it's 'cheap deli coffee'. And if you really like tasting coffee, keep an eye out for coffee cuppings, we've got some plans in the works!

*So tongue diagrams aren't that accurate, and there is a fifth flavor, umami, but mostly I wanted to keep this flavor discussion simple, rather than getting into the current debates over the science of taste.

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